A chaplain’s work at the Hennepin County Medical Center.
Dale Stuepfert, Becketwood Member
From 1984 to 2000, I served as Director of the Chaplaincy Department at the Hennepin County Medical Center.
Like most chaplains, one of my major tasks at HCMC was listening. And that is not as simple as it sounds. Listening is not always easy—particularly when we were with people who were in the middle of a crisis. We needed to be the ones who were doing the listening, who could be supportive of the families and friends whose loved ones may be facing great peril.
When you come into a big institution like a hospital, you have to conform to the institution. The institution doesn’t conform to you. People come to HCMC and they may be terrified, and then they have to conform to all these rules: “You have to sit here. You can’t go there. You can’t see your loved one. You’ll have to wait until we are done.”
Someone in the hospital needs to deal with these terrified people from the place they are at during such a traumatic time. And that is what chaplains do. Chaplains try to make the hospital a more hospitable place by listening to people and hearing what their concerns are. The doctors and the nurses often care about this, but they have too many functions to perform. They can’t listen as much as they might want to do.
At HCMC, we often spent more times with family and friends than we did with the patients. I remember working with the parents of a young man who had been in a car accident and had a very serious spinal injury. The nurse on duty told me that they were an older couple and they were quite upset. She asked them if they wanted to see a chaplain. The wife said: ‘No that’s OK. We are fine. In fact my husband is a minister.’ ”
But I told the nurse , “I am going in to see them, anyway.” So I went in, and introduced myself. The couple was very cordial. “Thank you for coming, Chaplain, but we are fine,” the wife told me.” My husband is a minister.” “Yes. I am a seminary professor,” he added.
I said to them: “You know , we chaplains can do a lot of stuff here. One thing I can do is get you a cup of coffee.” So that is what I did. An hour and half later, I left them in surgical intensive care. I had taken them up there, showed them where they could wait, and helped them get in to where they could see their son for the first time. And when I left, I got this warm embrace from the wife and a firm handshake from the husband. I hadn’t talked to them about faith issues. But I had helped them be in the hospital and I think I made them feel that someone was listening to them.
That was one side of what we do. But not everyone is as composed, as that couple was, at least on the surface. Sometimes we were the focus of the person’s anger. People who are in the middle of a crisis can be quite volatile. They can start screaming about the doctors and the people who were supposed to be taking care of their loved one. We saw it as our job to be there and take it, and let people move on past their anger. Maybe they had a question that they thought the medical staff didn’t answer properly. So we were able pass on the question to the staff and help interpret the answer for the family member.
I remember that there was a doctor who was killed in an ER department in California. Then even people here at Hennepin got scared. We had a lot of volatile people coming into the ER all the times with guns and knives. So the staff wanted more security. As a response, the hospital brought in a group of experts to look at our situation—some experts from Texas, as I remember. They spent weeks talking to people here. In the end, they recommended that the hospital do two things—increase the security staff by a couple of people and bring in more chaplains. That was amazing! Usually, I had to fight for a year or two to add one person to the staff, And just like that, overnight, we had new overnight chaplains in the hospital.
Only once was one of my chaplains hurt in a melee with a family member. A young man had been told that his son had been brought into the ER and the situation was serious. The man demanded to go in and see his son, but the nurse said: “No. You can’t do that. You are not allowed back there.” And he got angry and started swearing at her. My macho chaplain stepped in between her and the young man, and told him that he couldn’t talk to her like that. Boom! The man swung at him and decked him.
The chaplain’s mistake was that he moved into the man’s space. He could have done the same thing by staying at arm’s length, and talking to the man. He would have gotten the man’s anger but he wouldn’t have been punched.
As chaplains, we were involved in emotional issues, day after day. But we had to learn to separate ourselves from those issues when our shifts were done. It was a part of our training.
HCMC was and still is an intense place. It was a real privilege for me to be there, and to be a part of so many people’s lives.